Arguably his best album. As the title suggests, this is something of a calm after the storm for Fred Gillen Jr. Most musicians waited out the Bush regime uneasily; many, like Gillen, railed against the occupation, notably on his landmark 2008 collaboration with Matt Turk, Backs Against the Wall. Battered but optimistic, Gillen’s latest, Match Against a New Moon is his most memorably tuneful album. Ironically, the spot-on social commentary he’s best known for (this is a guy who appropriated Woody Guthrie’s “This guitar kills fascists” for his own six-string) is largely absent here. This cd goes more for a universal, philosophical outlook. At this point in his career, the songwriter Gillen most closely resembles is the Wallflowers‘ Jakob Dylan: he’s got a laserlike feel for a catchy janglerock hook, a killer chorus, a striking image and a clever double entendre.
The expansive, smartly assembled janglerock anthem that opens the album, Come and See Me, wouldn’t be out of place in the Marty Willson-Piper catalog. It sets the tone for the rest of the cd:
When all your relations are in prison or the grave
And you can’t remember what they took, only what you gave
And you are grateful that they’re gone ’cause they can’t hurt you anymore
Come and see me
With its big, anthemic chorus, The Devil’s Last Word takes the point of view of a guy whose favorite hangout spot is the train tracks: he likes living on the edge. The catchiest track here, a monster hit in an alternate universe where commercial radio plays good songs, is the Wallflowers-ish Don’t Give up the Ghost. It ponders a way out of the shadows of a difficult past, a quest for “some kind of answers or at least some questions finally worth asking.” An image-drenched carpe diem anthem for a troubled girl, Flicker gently points a way out: “We only get a moment to flicker in the night, a match against a new moon.”
The metaphorically-charged Americana rock shuffle Land of Hope could a Matt Keating song. Lay Me Down has the raw feel of a lo-fi acoustic demo that probably wasn’t meant to be on the album, but it made the cut because of the magic it captures, exhausted yet immutably optimistic. Leonard Cohen’s Hallelujah has been done to death by scores of inferior singers, but Gillen’s strikingly understated, conversational version is nothing short of souful. He follows it with a couple of dark rock narratives: the crescendoing junkie anthem Light of Nothing, which sounds like a sober mid-70s Lou Reed – if that makes any sense – and the vivid slum narrative Primitive Angels, which could be vintage, i.e. Darkness on the Edge of Town-era Springsteen. The album closes on an upbeat note with the hopeful You May Be Down. Gillen, who plays most of the instruments here, doesn’t waste a note, whether on guitars, bass, harmonica or even drums; Paul Silverman’s organ and Eric Puente’s drums contribute with similar terseness and intelligence, along with vocals from Catherine Miles and Laurie MacAllister, and Abbie Gardner contributing lapsteel and harmonies on Hallelujah. Gillen still plays frequent NYC area shows; watch this space.
Less than a month til our best 666 songs of alltime countdown reaches #1! Wednesday’s song is #29:
Bob Dylan – Tangled Up in Blue
Requiem for the hopes and dreams of the 60s disguised as a requiem for a relationship? Or vice versa?
All the people we used to know, they’re an illusion to me now
Some are mathematicians
Some are carpenters’ wives
I don’t know how it all got started
I don’t know what they do with their lives
From Blood on the Tracks, 1974.
Katzenjammer’s new album Le Pop is pretty amazing, a strong contender for best of 2010. With their gorgeous harmonies, old-fashioned instrumentation and frequently lush production, the accordion-driven all-female Oslo quartet sound like the Dresden Dolls but better (more energetic, less cutesy and a whole lot darker as well). The self-styled “queens of sultry sound” balance an eerily rustic noir edge with tongue-in-cheek humor, and lyrics in English. On the new cd, multi-instrumentalist Solveig Heilo, accordionists Anne Marit Bergheim and Marianne Sveen and bassist Turid Jørgensen – who plays the largest four-string instrument in all of rock – bounce, scamper and blast their way through a mix of tempos and styles that evoke such diverse acts as the B-52s, Gruppo Sportivo and Gogol Bordello.
The album opens on a surprisingly pensive note with an instrumental “overture,” followed by the scurrying Keystone Kops vibe of A Bar in Amsterdam, which amusingly morphs into a Pat Benetar-style power ballad on the chorus. With its jaunty gypsy swing, Demon Kitty Rag evokes satirical New York trio the Debutante Hour. Tea with Cinnamon is an absolute delight, a vintage Toots and the Maytals-style rocksteady number with accordion and a surprisingly wistful lyric. The title track, a snidely exuberant Gruppo Sportivo-style satire of American corporate music is great fun, and the outro is absolutely priceless.
The darker material here is just as captivating. Hey Ho on the Devil’s Back sets charming harmonies and barrelhouse piano to a Nashville gothic arrangement with a funny but disquieting edge, and a series of trick endings. The big, anguished crescendo on the lushly orchestrated suicide anthem Wading in Deeper packs a visceral punch; the violin-driven To the Sea showcases the band’s harmonies at their most otherworldly, with an off-center, Icelandic vibe. There’s also the sternly tongue-in-cheek Mother Superior, with its eerie carnival organ; Der Kapitan, a macabre-tinged surf instrumental done oompah style; the coy country bounce of Play, My Darling; Ain’t No Thang, an oldtimey banjo tune; and Virginia Clemm, a sad, eerily atmospheric waltz. The depth and intelligence of the songs matches their good-time appeal: it’s been a long time since we discovered a band who could do that as consistently as Katzenjammer do. The group are currently on US tour (at Milwaukee’s Summerfest on July 3 and 4, opening for Elvis Costello), with a date at the Mercury Lounge on July 6.
We very reluctantly suspended this popular weekly Tuesday feature about nine months ago when we went semi-dormant and didn’t tell a soul. It’s about time we brought it back. When we debuted our weekly Top Ten, we figured it made about as much sense as Billboard’s (it doesn’t). Like the corporate hit parade, this is totally random – it has absolutely nothing to do with sales or airplay. It’s our way of casting a wider net, spreading the word about artists that you might see on our live music calendar or in our album reviews, but more likely that you wouldn’t, maybe because they don’t have albums out or they’re not playing New York anytime soon. We’ve designed this as a self-guided tour of sorts, something where you can click the links here randomly, or one by one on your lunch break at work or school, chill out and discover something new. We try hard to put up something for everyone here, some loud stuff and some quieter stuff too; if you don’t like one of the tracks, you can always move on to another.
1. Kasey Anderson – Torn Apart
Anderson, being a very smart songwriter, is offering a free digital audio sampler of any four of his songs. So if you wanted, you could get this potent Americana janglerock escape anthem from his killer new album Nowhere Nights for nothing: send an email with the subject line “Sampler” to nowherenights[at]gmail.com, and include your four choices in the body of the email. It’s a trick other artists should use.
2. Loyola – Cage
Pensive acoustic pop song about the aftereffects of a military coup. Not often you see something this smart in a style like this.
3. My Favourite Things – Summer of ’91
Majestic anthem through a reverberating prism of shoegaze guitar – like the Church with the singer from Lush.
4. The Human Hearts – Pilot Light
Smartly detailed, evocative down-and-out scenario from the pen of the occasional Village Voice music writer. Better than you would think.
5. Hurricane Bells – The Winters in New York
Moody, jangly, vaguely Elliott Smith-esque stuff from former Longwave singer Steve Schiltz.
6. The Inner Banks – For the Turnstiles
Atmospheric slide guitar-driven, noirish Americana.
7. The Mikal Evans Band – To All the King Kongs
Edgy, crescendoing janglerock. This band plays Spike Hill a lot.
8. Carrie Erving – The Rains
Pensive rustic acoustic ballad that turns electric and nasty.
9. Evelyn Evelyn – Campaign of Shock and Awe
Hilarious stuff from the Dresden Dolls’ Amanda Palmer with Jason Webley.
10. You Scream I Scream – Dog
Funny faux hip-hop – like Garbage but not quite as dumb.
Only thirty more days til our best 666 songs of alltime countdown reaches #1! Tuesday’s song is #30:
The Church – For a Moment We’re Strangers
Opening with a blast of guitar fury uncommonly intense even for this band, it’s the most disquietingly accurate portrait of a one-night stand ever set to music:
In the empty place the souls strip bare
Of skins and heart
And they come apart
In your icy hands
I forget my role
As I stare into your soul
A title track of sorts from the iconic Australian art-rock band’s 1981 debut album.
If all the songs featured in the musical were played at their original length, this would be a five-hour box set. That the shortened versions here are worth hearing at all is an achievement. That they’re as fiery, and fun, and as true to the originals as they are, given the constraints of their use in a Broadway show, is nothing short of extraordinary. The original soundtrack to Fela, the most important Broadway show of our time (and arguably the most relevant Broadway show ever) more than lives up to its hype. For fans of world music, this album (just out on Knitting Factory Records) is essential; diehard Fela fans will not be disappointed. The band is killer, which is no surprise since the musicians have been drawn from the collective that started this whole thing, the western world’s best Afrobeat conglomerate, Antibalas. The percussion clatters, the bass slinks, the horns punch and soar. As the show’s star singer, Sahr Ngaujah does a mighty good Fela impersonation, although during the album’s occasional spoken interludes, he comes across far more lucidly and articulately than Fela ever did. Ngaujah eschews any attempt at projecting Fela’s defiant, dangerously stoned vibe: for whatever reason, he sounds a lot like Linton Kwesi Johnson – which is actually not a bad thing at all.
Reducing Fela’s endless, often interminable vamps down to a manageable essence of sometimes as little as three minutes minimizes their original intent – to keep a bunch of stoned dancers on their feet for hours at a time – but the added focus is actually welcome, especially as the musical plays up their importance as revolutionary anthems. The longest number, BID (Breaking It Down) clocks in at just under seven minutes. It’s awfully nice to see the scathing, richly lyrical, double entendre-laden Expensive Shit included here, poop jokes and all, in just under four. Most of the arrangements hew closely to the originals, although a few, notably Zombie and a tense, suspenseful Coffin for Head of State, are somewhat stripped down. The backup singers’ harmonies, most impressive during a lushly arranged and ecstatically delivered Trouble Sleep, are spot-on. Unfortunately, most of the women in the cast come across as dancers who can sing a little rather than singers who can also dance – they share the cookie-cutter, over-the-top, fussily melismatic corporate vocal style that’s been de rigeur since Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis destroyed what was left of black pop in the 1980s. Which is only a problem because the supporting cast get more time out in front of the band than they ever would have if the real Fela was running the show.
But when the group is cooking, Ngaujah is intoning “o-rig-in-al,” wagging his finger at the corrupt bourgeoisie or railing against their thugs, it is a historic occasion: both in terms of Fela’s role as a freedom fighter, and the somewhat improbable success of his music as mass-marketed theatre product. May the triumph of Fela on Broadway be an inspiration and a lesson to producers everywhere: the audience that has embraced this musical, and similarly edgy music, has been vastly underestimated for decades.
This year’s Bang on a Can Marathon aimed to be especially audience-friendly. In the “social media lounge” on the World Financial Center balcony, you could recharge your laptop, play an Evan Ziporyn or Julia Wolfe composition on Rock Band (!?!) and get your hand stamped by the hour. Those with a full twelve hours worth of stamps at the night’s end had earned Marathon Warrior designation, a certificate of merit (suitable for framing!) plus a mention on Bang on a Can’s main site and their twitter page. A little extreme, maybe, but that’s what a marathon’s all about. How does this year’s rank, compared to previous years? From the first four hours’ worth, somewhere around the top. The annual new music showcase runs ’em on and runs ’em off, meaning that if you don’t like the piece or ensemble that’s onstage at the moment, you can always come back in ten minutes and there’ll probably be somebody new up there. This year’s selection of performers and composers was characteristically skewed toward the avant-garde (subcategory: postminimalist) with jazzy edges.
The John Hollenbeck Large Ensemble opened the show auspiciously with the drummer/composer’s Perseverance, the centerpiece of the group’s excellent 2009 album Eternal Interlude. Completed on Election Eve, 2008 and dedicated to Obama, it sends three specific sax voices (played by Ellery Eskelin, Tony Malaby and Jeremy Viner) fluttering and flailing against the big band’s majestic swells and a couple of inspired drum breaks by the composer. Eskelin got the Obama role and hung in there tenaciously for all it was worth.
Innovatively and more than a little deviously, German recorder quartet QNG ran through a New York premiere of Dorothee Hahne’s somewhat understated Dance Macabre and its neat half-time ending, and then Paul Moravec’s Mortal Flesh, shifting from hypnotic horizontality to warped baroque, utilizing at least half a museum’s worth of recorders of various sizes. They brought the big seven-foot model out for the final piece, Moritz Eggert’s LOL funny Flohwalze (that’s German for Chopsticks – the tune, that is), mocking and thrashing its cheesiness to the fullest extent that a recorder quartet can thrash.
The mockery continued with Kyrzyg musicians Kambar Kalendarov and Kutman Sultanbekov playing a simple boing-boing jews harp riff over and over again, completely deadpan until the very end, as if to see if the westerners in the crowd knew they were being had. The crowd’s polite applause seemed to confirm the Kyrzygs’ suspicions. The duo finally played a little country dance on lute and fiddle and that was that.
Florent Ghys effectively took speech patterns and did a one-man band thing, making vaguely baroque-themed loops out of them by playing his upright bass through a series of electronic effects. Eggert then did the same on piano, except that his Hammerklavier III went all-out for laughs and delivered them in droves as he pounded the piano everywhere he could reach, finally kicking up his heel on the low keys and losing his shoe in the process.
The Lucy Moses School’s ensemble Face the Music played Graham Fitkin’s Mesh, which attempts to make a rondo capricioso of sorts out of minimal, circular phrases that eventually move into elevator jazz territory. Following them was a duo playing a Tristan Perich work for tubular bells, electronically processed and amplified to the point that it was like being behind a fleet of garbage trucks with their backup alarms shrieking at full volume: a bathroom break waiting to happen.
Alto saxophonist/composer Steve Coleman, joined by Jonathan Finlayson on trumpet, and David Millares on piano played the captivating suite Formation – Lunar Eclipse, cleverly and often intensely exploring permutations of a hypnotic, circular introductory theme that finally got the chance to cut loose when Millares, whose intensity shadowing Coleman’s sax lines all the way through finally got a chance to break loose and wreak some slightly restrained havoc.
With their marimbas, vibraphones, gongs, water jugs and all sorts of other bangable objects, percussion troupe Slagwerk Den Haag opened their short set with the New York premiere of Seung-Ah Oh’s delightfully playful DaDeRimGill, a dramatic laundry-room scenario that managed to be as purposeful and conversational as it was comedic. Marco Momi’s Ludica (an American premiere) displayed the same kind of conversational tradeoffs and humor.
While one trailerload of instruments was being cleared off the stage for another, the JACK Quartet played Iannis Xenakis’ Tetras on the steps in the back of the atrium, amid the audience, moving from characteristic astringent, percussive phrases to swirling and strikingly melodic ambience. It was the big hit of the day, at least until Evan Ziporyn and his group Gamelan Galak Tika were ready to go. Bang on a Can’s Michael Gordon laughed it up with the composer beforehand since the group follow oldschool gamelan tradition, right down to the matching uniforms and seating arrangements. “I thought it was the Bang on a Can pyjama party,” Ziporyn responded sheepishly. “Xenakis, next to a gamelan, really sums up Bang on a Can,” which pretty much says it all.
And the Ziporyn piece they played, Tire Fire, was as aptly titled as it was transcendent. Ziporyn self-deprecatingly remarked beforehand that the piece really had no real reason to exist. Which maybe it doesn’t – other than to give audiences (and ensemble members) a shot of pure adrenaline exhilaration. It’s a triptych of sorts, each theme introduced by the group’s two electric guitarists. The first movement was the eeriest and the best, the ensemble’s bells ringing out an ocean of overtones against the Telecaster’s ominous shades. The two following movements were more optimistic, the second pulsing along with catchy yet stately electric bass. And with that, after four hours of music, it was time to fly out into the hundred-degree heat. Which combined with the messed-up state of the West Village, the police mystifyingly blocking off access to subways from Christopher to 14th St. despite the presence of a huge crowd who’d come out for the gay parade, made the prospect of a return later in the day a foregone conclusion.
Every day for the next month, our best 666 songs of alltime countdown continues all the way to #1. Monday’s song is #31:
Bob Dylan – Desolation Row
Righteously wrathful, snidely sarcastic, lyrically luscious anti-trendoid rant that does double duty as a passionate defense of true art battling with the other kind. So many killer phrases in this that it’s impossible to list them all. From Highway 61 Revisited, 1967.
Every day, for about the next month, our best 666 songs of alltime countdown continues all the way to #1. Sunday’s song is #32:
Jim Croce – Operator
The third-highest-ranked US pop chart hit on this list will give you chills – the narrator has lost it so badly, and is so desperate for some kind of human contact that he doesn’t want the 411 operator to go after he’s clearly exhausted her patience. And what an amazing bassline. One can only wonder if Croce might have written another one like this, had he lived.
Every day, for a little more than a month, our best 666 songs of alltime countdown continues all the way to #1. Saturday’s song is #33:
The Church – Bel Air
Eerie, surreal vacation scenario set to what might be the band’s most unaffectedly beautiful melody: Jimmy Buffett through a Weegee lens. From the band’s classic 1981 debut album Of Skins and Heart (simply titled The Church here in the US).